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Chrimes watch: Digging up the past reveals a wealth of forgotten knowledge

Amidst the news of war and devastation of the past few weeks there was an interesting news item about an archaeological dig in Shropshire.

Huge knowledge gaps tackled

One suspects if most people were to summarise early British history it would be something like cave men, Stonehenge, the Romans, Alfred, and William the Conqueror. There are huge gaps in our knowledge of how people lived before the Romans and in the so-called Dark Ages.

The general assumption is that the Romans created the first civilisation in Britain in a way that we would recognise it today, and the first road network. The Shropshire dig has revealed an Iron Age road serving a quarry.

Roads before the Romans

This suggests that there were well made roads before the Romans arrived. The road, with a steep camber to the cross-section, and drainage dikes on both sides, was carbon dated from the brush wood foundation layer.

One wonders what the extent to which similar evidence on ancient routes has been lost over time. So perhaps the Celts were the first British civil engineers.

Another corrective to history also came to the ICE in early March − the English Heritage report by Stephen Brindle and Malcolm Tucker on Brunel’s cast iron bridges.

Readers will recall the recent discovery and rescue of Brunel’s Bishop’s Bridge Road cast iron bridge over the canal bank, at Paddington in London.

“Most twentieth century historians had assumed, based on a few frequently quoted sources, that Brunel distrusted cast iron, and rarely used it”

This prompted English Heritage to fund a research project into the survival of other Brunel cast iron bridges, and the extent to which he used the material. Most twentieth century historians had assumed, based on a few frequently quoted sources, that Brunel distrusted the material, and rarely used it.

Brindle and Tucker’s work reveals that Brunel regularly used cast iron on the Great Western Railway and its satellite lines.

His early beam designs were based on the work of Thomas Tredgold, rather than Eaton Hodgkinson’s researches, which was the basis of Robert Stephenson’s designs.

As such they could be regarded as less up-to-date. The report demonstrates how Brunel’s designs evolved, and identifies a handful of extant structures, mostly aqueducts. It is currently available for reference in the library and it is hoped to get English Heritage’s permission to make it available as a PDF.

Brindle and Tucker made use of the ICE Library’s Tredgold and Hodgkinson’s books and papers. This is further evidence of the value of historical sources to practicing engineers.

  • If you would like to help preserve this heritage, you can ‘adopt a book’. Contact carol.morgan@ice.org.uk for more information.

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